Teaching and Learning in the Rhizome: challenges and possibilities

On Thursday 18th June Frances Bell and I presented a session at Liverpool John Moores University’s Teaching and Learning Conference, which earlier in the year put out a call for papers which could address the theme: ‘Locations for learning: where does the learning take place?’

We immediately recognized that our research into rhizomatic learning would fit this theme. The rhizome has been used as a metaphor for teaching and learning by many educators who are interested in encouraging learners to explore new spaces for learning.

This is the Abstract we submitted.

We can no longer preserve the illusion that learning is bounded by the classroom or other formal educational structures. Learners routinely navigate complex uncertain environments offered by social media and the web. Beyond the boundaries of the classroom, on the social web, learners enter the rhizome.

Our research in a massive open online course, Rhizomatic Learning: The community is the curriculum (now known as Rhizo14) revealed mixed learner experiences. Rhizo14 was modelled on Deleuze and Guattari’s principles of the rhizome, outlined in their book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, although ultimately it was an experiment about learning in an age of uncertainty and abundance, rather than a course about the rhizome. The experiment sought to learn about what happens when learners take control of their learning and through connection and interaction determine the curriculum.

As a location for learning, the rhizome challenges traditional views of education, allowing entry anywhere and knowing no boundaries. Within a rhizome, learners select and follow their own learning paths, taking many ‘lines of flight’ and travelling as nomads. Learning takes place through a multiplicity of connections, continually being formed, broken and reformed. Learners learn from each other and together create their own curricula; hierarchies and authority are eschewed.

Learning in the Rhizo14 rhizome had both light and dark sides. It was motivating and stimulating, leading to intense creativity, engagement and transformational learning, but the freedom to roam increased learner vulnerability. In the absence of an ethical framework, the burden of ‘teaching’ fell on to the most active with some unintended and invisible consequences.

We will discuss with the audience how learning ethically in the rhizome might take place and how freedom and responsibility might be balanced.

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

Over 400 delegates, mostly from the University but also including a few external presenters like ourselves, signed up for the conference and more than 80 sessions were presented over the two days. It was a lively conference and an enjoyable experience.

For our session we had 25 minutes in which we wanted to leave as much time for discussion as possible. As such we spoke for about 10 minutes, and then spent the remaining time discussing the challenges and possibilities of rhizomatic learning with our audience.

At the start we asked whether anyone was familiar with Deleuze and Guattari’s work on the principles of the rhizome. Two people were, but the concept was new to everyone else. In the time we had available to us we were only able to briefly outline what happened in Rhizo14 and the rhizomatic principles that inspired it. We then asked participants to divide into groups to discuss four statements that we hoped would stimulate thinking about the challenges and possibilities of using the rhizome as a concept for teaching and learning:

  • Learning requires boundaries
  • Learners cannot be trusted to select and follow their own learning paths
  • Learners can create their own curriculum through peer interaction
  • Learners and teachers know how to balance freedom and responsibility in social learning spaces

Ultimately only the first three statements were discussed but the feedback culminated in a response to the fourth statement.

Learning requires boundaries. The group discussing this statement felt that boundaries are helpful and that learners benefit from different types of boundaries at different times. Sometimes boundaries need to be rigid, which they represented by drawing a solid line, sometimes more flexible, which they represented with a dotted line. They acknowledged that looser institutional boundaries allow for more personal learning and that boundaries are always moving.

Learners cannot be trusted to select and follow their own learning paths. This group thought that selection is part and parcel of the learning process because learning goals change as the learning progresses. They made the interesting comment that the learning path is determined by a process of elimination.

Learners can create their own curriculum through peer interaction. This group wanted to change the word ‘create’ to ‘shape’. They thought that it is possible for learners to shape their own curriculum through peer interaction with facilitation and guidance, but they recognized that ultimately the curriculum would be determined by the majority and that there would be institutional constraints.

In listening to these responses we felt that all three statements had been discussed in the context of balancing structure and freedom, which relates to the fourth statement, and to ideas that we continue to explore in our ongoing research into rhizomatic learning.

We were very pleased with how this session went. Participants only had 15 minutes for discussion and feedback, but all engaged with the prompts and each group responded with thoughtful and insightful comments.

Many thanks to all those who attended our session and engaged so actively, and also to Elena Zaitseva, who chaired the session, fully engaged herself and kept us all to time so well.

Shaping the Future of Higher Education – standing still is not an option

Next week I will be attending a day conference about the future of Higher Education at Southampton University, so this month’s Teaching and Learning Conversation, hosted by Chrissi Nerantzi, caught my attention.

The webinar was run by Prof Ale Armellini, Professor of Learning and Teaching in HE, University of Northampton. The title of the session was Opportunities for Shaping the Future of HE in a Challenging Climate.

This was an enjoyable and thought provoking session, in which Ale Armellini shared the work that is being done at the University of Northampton to prepare for the future in Higher Education – or at least to try and anticipate the changes that might need to be made.

Universities are being hit by disruptive waves. They have to compete for students, compete to offer cheaper alternatives and compete in offering online delivery. Physical space is at a premium, there is global competition for increasing numbers of diverse and demanding students, and there is a critical need to change the way they do business.

Northampton University has recognized that students want a personalized learning environment and that to meet increasing student demands they will have to raise the bar. For them this means increasing excellence and innovation, inspirational teaching and transformational learning practices and open practice. It also means exceeding student expectation regardless of their mode of study, and providing CPD and recognition for staff in relation to innovation and change. Currently the balance of different students at Northampton looks like this.

Northampton 2014

A possible scenario for 2020 might be this

Northampton 2020

There will need to be a balance between campus-based provision and online provision, but Universities will need to think carefully about how to add value to the campus experience.

Northampton is currently thinking about it in two ways:

  1. The balance between face-to-face learning and online learning will change as undergraduates go through their 3 year degree courses as depicted in the following chart:

Changes from Year 1 to Year 3

But Northampton is also thinking about how to change the learning experience and their current thinking is that lectures will become a thing of the past, as depicted in this slide.

Prospective changes at Northampton

Unfortunately this was only a one-hour lunchtime webinar. We could have continued the discussion for much longer and it was clear that Prof Armellini had plenty more he could have shared with us.

Chrissi Nerantzi has already posted the recording of the webinar at  . It will be a valuable resource.

Thanks to Chrissi and Prof Ale Armellini for a most interesting session, which was particularly timely for my own work.

Lassoing the coltish concepts of Emergent Learning and MOOCs

Why is it that when we find something wonderfully creative, emergent and innovative, we often try to ‘capture’ it, constrain and contain it, package it, order it, thereby effectively destroying what it was about it that attracted us to it in the first place?

This question has arisen in two discussions I have been involved in this week.

Mooc framework graphic2-mini

On Wednesday 20th November George Siemens convened a 6 hour JAM to discuss a framework for MOOCs in Higher Education . What a wild gathering that was. Everyone talking over each other, darting in and out. It was frenetic and completely impossible to see the whole picture at the time (although it is now possible to go back through the archives) – but it was a lot of fun.

Amazingly it was possible to connect with others despite the chaotic feel to it all.  Shaun Kellogg  sent me an article to read after the event (thanks Shaun) and I felt I touched base with quite a few people. But I don’t envy George having to make sense of it all and even more I don’t envy him having to put together a Framework for MOOCs in Higher Education, which seems such a contradiction to me. I’ll try and explain.

I’m not sure how a framework fits with the openness that MOOCs try to promote – nor the diversity or autonomy. I associate a framework in Higher Education with an attempt to impose order, to bring institutions into line with each other, to see consistency, to agree on standards and so on. I can see that this could be done for MOOCs, but would this mean that MOOCs would lose their potential for experimentation, promoting creativity and innovation in Higher Education? Would those dreams of disrupting Higher Education, of searching for new ways to think about education, for democratizing education be lost? Would MOOCs become just another framework in a long list of frameworks?  These thoughts surfaced for me when one of the JAM participants said her institution needed a framework so that the MOOC designers would know what to do, because they didn’t know enough about pedagogy! For her, giving them a framework would answer this problem. For me not only is this a different and dismaying problem, but also very disappointing if that is what the Framework is for.

I would like to be clearer about what purpose the Framework will serve and how it will remain true to the initial aspirations of the early MOOCs, and to be reassured that this won’t be a backward step.

UPDATE 25-11-13 For a different perspective, see Matthias Melcher’s blog post ‘Wrapping and Grasping’.

scope-badgeSimilar stimulating discussions have been happening in the SCoPE community this week, around the subject of emergent learning – key questions being ‘Can you design for emergent learning?’ and ‘Can you assess emergent learning?’ There have been some wonderful comments which reflect on the difficulties in answering these questions.

For example:

Phillip Rutherford – writes in answer to the first question about designing for emergent learning:

To try and harness complexity and emergence is, by definition, to reduce it to a state of equilibrium, that is, stability which may see the notion of intentional design added to the desired objective but which in reality takes the learning out of the hands of the learner and places it in the hands of the teacher.

And Nick Kearney – writes in answer the question about emergent learning and assessment:

The issue about emergent learning (or whatever you want to call it) is that it escapes the prior definitions we have worked with in the field. There are three reactions, and they are present in this debate.

One tries to lasso the coltish concept and drag it back within the fold. Once the emergent learning generates evidence it becomes manageable within a system that fails fundamentally to trust the individual (this is so ingrained we mostly don’t even notice it).

Another notices emergent learning as an interesting anomaly, something worth studying, and of course measuring, and scoping and observing. Welcome of course, but I dare say, eternally marginal.

Then there is the view (not a new view) that understands emergent learning, once it is recognised as existing, as a fundamental and profound challenge to the way our society understands learning, knowledge and socialisation. If you recognise it you have to rethink education.

These comments, and many others in the SCoPE forums, resonate so strongly with my thinking and our work on emergent learning, and I now see more clearly why I have been struggling with the notion of a MOOC framework.

Our discussions in the SCoPE community will remain open until the end of next week  (November 29th). It is an open community, so if these ideas interest you, join us there.

Thanks to everyone in the forums for a stimulating week and to Nick Kearney, Phillip Rutherford, all SCoPE participants and George Siemens for motivating me to think about these ideas and write this post – and especially to Nick for the title of the post 🙂

#FSLT13 Hybrid Learning

FSLT13  –  ends this week and was wonderfully well rounded off by Cris Crissman who talked in the live session about opportunities for openness in hybrid learning. See Cris’ blog – Virtually Foolproof

Cris has loads of teaching experience and really embraces openness and the opportunites that different technologies provide for doing this.

She also embraces creativity and this shows in her presentation.

She didn’t only present her own ideas and content but also managed to pull together threads from the previous two presentations, my own and Sylvia Currie’s to nicely sum up some of the key messages from the whole course.

I don’t think I need to say any more. Cris explains it all much better than I could – so here is the video.

You can also find links to the actual Blackboard Collaborate session and Cris’ Diigo site here.

An alternative perspective on the meaning of ‘open’ in Higher Education

With the rise of MOOCs there has been much speculation about the meaning of ‘open’, particularly with respect to the Higher Education business model.  It is clear that ‘open’ can be interpreted in a number of different ways.

In relation to MOOCs the term ‘open’ relates principally to open access, i.e. anyone can attend – there are no entry requirements. This could apply to face-to-face courses, as when University lecturers welcome members of the public to attend their lectures, and to online courses, where anyone with an internet connection and the appropriate technology can attend the course.

‘Open’ is also often associated with ‘free’, as in open resources on the web which can be freely downloaded and according to the creative commons license can be ‘customised’ to suit the user’s purposes.

Perhaps most significantly for Higher Education, ‘open’ can be associated with transparency, which involves a way of ‘being’ or a ‘state of mind’. Martin Weller has raised awareness of the need for scholars to be ‘open’ in his book ‘The Digital Scholar’,  and ‘open research’ and ‘open journals’ are steadily gaining momentum as a way of working.

Open access and free courses in which all learners and teachers freely share their expertise is thought by followers of many MOOCs, particularly the original cMOOCs, as the means to democratize education (See Fred Garnett’s blog post for further thoughts about Building Democratic Learning).

Will this mean the end of Universities as we know them? From the work that I do with different Universities, not just in the UK, but also around the world, I don’t think so, at least not yet. Some institutions are still struggling to get lecturers to work online at all, never mind be ‘open’ online. It may be that we have to wait for this generation of lecturers to retire before we have an entire population of University lecturers who are ‘open’ scholars. Although technologies are developing at a speed inconceivable a few years ago, and the number of MOOCs being offered is daily increasing, things tend to move slowly in Higher Education.  The recent Horizon Report on Higher Education sees openness and MOOCs as key trends, whilst at the same time stating that ‘Most academics are not using new technologies for learning and teaching, nor for organizing their own research’.

So, if the adoption of ‘openness’ is going to be a slow process, what are the alternatives? In recent work that I have done on the development of  ‘closed’ online courses/training packages, which are paid for, it has been interesting to realize that maybe a ‘step’ towards an understanding of the meaning of openness is through collaboration across institutions and countries. Whilst this does not address ‘open’ as in ‘free’ nor ‘open access’, it does begin to address ‘open sharing’ and what it means to ‘be’ open. It’s a long step away from ‘open’ as advocated by the first MOOC in 2008 (CCK08), but it’s a beginning.  This approach also keeps the money coming in, as exemplified by the following two projects I have worked on:

  1. A government funded project to develop training materials to be delivered to schools across the country. This project used the funding to bring together 7 regional groups to collaboratively work on developing the training materials, which to date have been delivered to 9700+ people. At their most basic level these training sessions and materials are free, but schools pay for more advanced training and materials.  This project not only developed high quality training materials, and in monetary terms provided a return on investment, but through adopting a collaborative approach, developed an online network/community which would continue to share expertise.
  2. A project initiated by a publishing company to develop online courses for Higher Education, through a highly collaborative international and cross institutional approach. Purchase of the courses is required up front in return for the opportunity to influence the authoring and development process, the possibility of customizing the courses to suit the individual investing institution and implementation support from the publishing company. This collaborative approach also promotes networking and open sharing between institutions within countries and across the world.

These are just two examples of how apparently ‘closed’ developments within Higher Education are becoming more open.

So perhaps institutions that are struggling to get their heads round how to become more ‘open’ whilst at the same time preserving a viable business model, could think more in terms of increasing national and international collaboration and cooperation.

19-04-13 Postscript

Stephen Downes has responded to this post as follows:

Jenny Mackness proposes, “maybe a ‘step’ towards an understanding of the meaning of openness is through collaboration across institutions and countries. Whilst this does not address ‘open’ as in ‘free’ nor ‘open access’, it does begin to address ‘open sharing’ and what it means to ‘be’ open.” I don’t know. I’ve observed collaborations across institutions for decades, without a corresponding increase in openness. It could be that such collaborations (and the fund-seeking that preceeds them) actually distracts from openness.

I have to say that ‘I don’t know’ either – or whether such collaborations might distract from openness.

My thinking in making this post was around the question of how to reach or convince people who resist ‘openness’ of the value of and need for ‘openness’, and what a possible approach to the business model issues might be.

Are MOOCs immune to rigorous investigation?

The title of this post is taken from David Wiley’s blog post that he made earlier this year. And this week on Twitter Apostolos Koutropoulos commented that there is currently a lot of comment on MOOCs, but much less research.

David Wiley mentions that his PhD student is researching MOOCs and I know that Eleni Boursinou of the Caledonian Academy in Glasgow – is researching the FSLT12 MOOC, so I suspect there are many more PhD students who are investigating MOOCs.

I think it’s probably true that there is more comment on MOOCs than published research, but the body of research is slowly growing. Here are a couple of links which point to research and there are more:

A Wikipedia site

Rita Kop and colleagues’s publications

Recently I worked with George Roberts, Marion Waite and Liz Lovegrove (from Oxford Brookes University), Joe Rosa (Cambridge University) and Sylvia Currie, BC Campus Canada (see Tutor Team), to develop and run the FSLT12 MOOC earlier this year. A funding  requirement of this MOOC is to follow it up with research.

Yesterday we had a full day review/research meeting in Oxford, on an exceptionally hot day, which made Oxford’s yellow sandstone buildings look spectacular, but made concentration a bit difficult …… but we had a very enjoyable and ultimately productive day, fuelled by edible treats and celebrated at the end of the day with a bottle of Prosecco! Thanks George and Marion 🙂

We have decided on four research papers, which we hope will reach different audiences.

  1. What evidence is there for the ways people learn in MOOCs (I will lead on this one). Audience – Studies in Higher Education or BERJ
  2. How do you design and plan a MOOC? (George will lead on this one). Audience – JIME or JCAL?
  3. Differential participation and designing for differentiation (Marion will lead this one). Audience – IRRODL
  4. The First Steps curriculum – a case study (Liz will lead this one). Audience – BeJLT and Press release for ALT, HEA, SEDA, JISC ?

We are keen to get this research out as quickly as possible. This will be a challenge for me. I am naturally a ‘slow’ researcher, but I acknowledge that there is a balance to be achieved between reflective, well thought through research and ‘missing the boat’ in relation to the fast moving conversation and developments around MOOCs.

As I have experienced before, it is difficult to know how open to be about ongoing research, i.e. in what sense might openness in the research process compromise the research. I would like to keep posting about our progress and hopefully this won’t compromise the research. In particular I would welcome any thoughts about any of the questions we have and particularly welcome any references to others who have researched and published in similar areas.

Before finishing this post I am going to do a plug here for staying in Exeter College if you ever go to Oxford.

Exeter College, Oxford

My room was a bit noisy so be sure to ask for a room in a quiet area – or even next to the chapel where you might be treated to a Baroque Music Concert; you might even end up in the Chapel at 4.00 am because of a false fire alarm, as I did

The Chapel, Exeter College, Oxford
The Chapel, Exeter College, Oxford

but when you walk into breakfast in this setting, everything is forgiven.

Breakfast in Exeter College Dining Hall, Oxford
Breakfast in Exeter College Dining Hall, Oxford University

Oxford really is an amazing place.

I hope we will be able to show that MOOCs are not immune to rigorous investigation and add to the increasing body of respected research.

The Business Model for MOOCs

Last week I was at the HEA/SEDA day conference in Birmingham, UK

HEA/SEDA Conference on OER and Staff Development: Open Horizons: Sharing the future

I was there with my colleagues George Roberts, Marion Waite and Liz Lovegrove  because we had a slot in which we shared the work we have done on the FSLT12 MOOC. George has posted his slides to Slideshare.

What is Necessary and what is Contingent in Design for Massive Open Online Courses?


You will see that there are a lot of slides (48), but in fact we only got to slide 27 because there was so much interest in the MOOC and so many questions – and of course, so little time for discussion.

However, there was one very interesting, topical and pertinent question, which was,

What was the business model for the FSLT12 MOOC?

And it seems that this question is currently being considered by others on and off the net – see for example the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Inside the Coursera Contract: How an Upstart Company Might Profit From Free Courses

It seems that many institutions think about business models in terms of how much money they can make from MOOCs and certainly Oxford Brookes is thinking of accrediting the MOOC and charging for assessment next year.

But I wonder whether it would be better to think of the benefits and strategic advantages of offering MOOCs in non-direct monetary terms.

I was very interested at the conference in the session presented by Melissa Highton on OERs and Staff Development at University of Oxford. In her presentation she talked about the development of OERs – iTunesU – at the University, what this had involved, how lecturers had been encouraged to share their work and the benefits to Oxford University.

Through their iTunesU open lectures (videos and podcasts) Oxford University now has strong links with their alumni and prospective students. iTunesU thus helps the University to meet many of its institutional goals. The iTunesU site effectively markets and broadcasts the high quality teaching practice at the University and provides access to the expertise of Oxford University lecturers and the latest research.  The University has a quick turn around time for creating and uploading videos of lectures and podcast. For example they were able to upload a response to the Higgs boson discovery within 24 hours.

ITunesU also puts Oxford lecturers and researchers in the limelight. A video of a good lecture can get up to 100,000 hits a week and a lecturer can become widely known for his/her work in a matter of years or less, rather than it taking anything up to a lifetime as in the past. This has also had the effect of raising the status of teaching/lecturing in comparison to research.

The situation at Oxford University (and Cambridge) is different to some other institutions – because at Oxford the lecturers own their teaching materials and work, unlike at other Universities where anything produced by a lecturer as part of their work belongs to the institution. So through iTunesU and providing OERs in the name of the academic staff, the University is able to openly market the expertise of its staff. The reward for staff who do this is a high quality resource in their name which is open to the whole world. Both the institution and the lecturers benefit.

Clearly Oxford University must have the money to be able to produce these high quality OERs so quickly, but these resources are open access, clearly licensed through Creative Commons and free.

Whilst iTunesU is not a MOOC, the non-monetary benefits, or non-direct monetary benefits (since attracting increasing numbers of students from across the world will ultimately bring monetary benefits), are probably those that can be gained from running a MOOC.

Perhaps Universities who wish to run MOOCs need to take a fresh look at what they mean by ‘business model’.